Mama Weed ’s weak storytelling and lack of distinct style disappoint, but Isabelle Huppert’s killer performance keeps this film watchable.
Meet Patience Portefeux (Isabelle Huppert), a French-Arabic translator who works for a narcotics squad for the Paris police and listens to wiretapped phone conversations. Just as the police are about to capture a smuggler trafficking a big shipment of hash, Patience discovers that the smuggler’s mother is Kadidja (Farida Ouchani), a caretaker at the nursing home where her mother (Liliane Rovère) lives. Patience makes a fortuitous decision to help Kadidja, and gives her instructions for her son to drop the shipment of hash to hide it from the police so he won’t get caught with it when he gets arrested.
Using her insider knowledge of the case and adopting a retired police dog named DNA, Patience successfully recovers the hash and decides to sell it to “Scotch” (Rachid Guellaz) and “Cocoa Puff” (Mourad Boudaoud), the two suspects she listens in on. Disguised as an elegant criminal mastermind nicknamed “La Daronne” (“The Matron”) she begins running a successful operation selling the hash, but soon arouses the suspicions of the police and the dealers looking for their missing hash. Just how long can she evade them, especially the police chief Philippe (Hippolyte Girardot) she is dating?
Mama Weed (La Daronne) is a frustrating film with plenty of squandered opportunity. What could have been a breezy, stylish crime comedy instead is a messy, inconsistent effort with flaws abound in its screenplay and filmmaking. It’s difficult to make much sense of Mama Weed’s tone—it positions itself as a charming, eccentric comedy about a woman trying to reinvent her life, but its occasional realist flashes like scenes of police violence suggest otherwise and feel out of place, considering that the film doesn’t even bother to confront or even engage with this topic. You easily get the sense that the film’s politics are messy and confused, and with suspiciously frequent references and jokes about China, it comes across as carelessly bigoted at times.
Meanwhile, the screenplay is riddled with all sorts of visible flaws, like a clear lack of tension and the absence of a powerful climax. There’s a good setup in here about the police trying to identify “La Daronne,” but their suspicion of Patience never really materializes, and it’s clearly a missed opportunity to inject some real suspense into the story. We never encounter a real antagonist either—two dealers appear in this role partway through but are soon rendered irrelevant much too soon to fulfill this role. There’s no real threat or urgency outside of a couple scene where Patience is about to be caught or killed, and the film rarely offers any convincing thrills.
Even more irritating is Mama Weed’s sloppy direction. Apart from a couple of smooth, cinematic establishing shots at the end, it’s generally difficult to follow the action, as the images move far too quickly for our eyes. Often, the camera movements are far too quick, the shots are far too short, and the editing is far too choppy. There’s poor visual coordination throughout, and even worse, no sense of style or personality that this story desperately calls for. Save for a memorable scene where we see Patience’s grand entrance as “La Daronne” when she first meets her buyers at a hotel, the film is remarkably devoid of the visual personality befit for a crime comedy—something like swaggering energy of the Oceans films easily comes to mind. For instance, there are a couple of montage sequences that are just calling out for more rhythm and vibrancy, and it’s a shame that Mama Weed couldn’t even deliver on that front.
However, Mama Weed’s saving grace is the lead performance from the always-stellar Isabelle Huppert. Huppert imbues Patience with a confident, determined, and at times even vulnerable presence, crafting a memorable character that ensures our eyes are kept glued to the screen when the script and filmmaking fail to engage us. Patience’s character transformation is entirely convincing, and Huppert sells the role as both a stressed translator trying to put her life together and an amateur weed dealer with the effortless panache and skill of a career criminal. Her performance alone carries Mama Weed where nearly every other aspect falters, and it’s clear she deserved a much better film.
Mama Weed was screened digitally at the French Film Festival @ Home on Saturday, 20th March, 2021.